Thunder Building Mental Energy During Challenging Stretch

The Thunder has been jet-setting to and from different cities for the past week, first to Oakland, then Los Angeles and now Dallas for a game tonight against the Mavericks.

After getting one game at home on Friday against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Thunder will go on to play five consecutive Western Conference road games to cap a stretch of eight-out-of-nine games away from Oklahoma City. During a compressed schedule like the one NBA teams face this season, the Thunder knows it must use its resiliency, depth and passion for the game to excel during road trips like this one.

“We know going into this part of the season that it was going to be a very tough stretch, a lot of road games coming up quickly,” Head Coach Scott Brooks said. “You play each game the best you can play it and you have great execution, great energy and we’ve done a pretty good job with that all year. I don’t anticipate that changing with the way our guys are wired. They love to play, they’re pretty consistent with their effort, and we’re getting better as a team. … We always somehow figure it out to get better.”

Before the season, General Manager Sam Presti talked about the Thunder developing “mental energy” and how that would pay dividends in the long run. Tough playoff series, long road trips and crunch-time battles are all ways in which this Thunder team has continued to build that mental energy and use it to its advantage. Forward Kevin Durant said that the team’s toughness and focus will be crucial during this part of the schedule.

“We have to be prepared for it, and I think we are,” Durant said. “We’re a mentally tough team and everybody comes in and is focused and knows what we have to do. It’s just a matter of us translating that to the floor and having fun. We can’t put too much pressure on ourselves. We have to go out there and have fun. That’s what I always tell the guys before the game. Most of the time that’s what we do.”

One way in which the Thunder has channeled that energy and made playing together fun is by viewing every game, practice and shoot-around as its own entity and treating each one with the utmost importance. When a team is on the road and hopping from one city to the next, it is essential for it to get as much out of a shoot-around session as possible, which is something that Brooks recognizes.

“We have a stretch of seven games in 10 nights, but there are not a lot of practices,” Brooks said. “So we have to utilize our shoot-arounds, and our guys do a good job. We don’t go hard but we put things in place and try to work on things that need to be improved. That’s the art of coaching, figuring out what needs work and do it and try not to have slippage in other areas. Shoot-arounds have always been important for us.”

Perhaps that dedication to getting better and improving during each practice and shoot-around session, particularly the ones on the road, have led to the Thunder having the best road record in the NBA thus far. At 8-3, the Thunder has a better record away from Chesapeake Energy Arena than most of the other teams in the NBA have at their home arenas. On the mornings before games, the squeaking of sneakers and shouting of instructions creates a symphony that screams, “Improvement.” The work continues well after shoot-around is done, when most players continue to shoot and work on ball-handling.

“We’re a team that relies on shoot-arounds and practices a lot,” Durant said. “We’re not one of those teams that just turns it on at seven o’clock. Our game started for us at 11 o’clock when shoot-around started. Everyone is always focused and we know this is a time for us to get better.”

That switch was flipped as soon as the Thunder took the court this morning to prepare for its game against the Mavericks. The Thunder has split its two meetings with the Mavericks thus far, and understands that it will be a high-intensity, defensive-minded battle in Dallas tonight .

“They’re always tough. Playing these guys, they have so many offensive weapons,” Durant said. “It’s tough to guard them. It’s always going to be a battle between us."